Michael Beltz, Department of Philosophy & Religion, University of North Dakota
Much of the recent discourse about higher education has become dominated by an anxiety over whether the modern university system is properly preparing Millennial students for the modern workforce. The two most recent examples of this anxiety have been presented in opinion pieces in major national news organizations. Kathleen Parker, in the Washington Post, opined that the university system is too focused on coddling students and is graduating them without the necessary skills employers need. Much of the attention this article received focused on universities that have spent money upgrading student housing and extracurricular facilities in order to entice students to those universities (as opposed to spending those resources on providing useful skills to the students). Jeffrey Selingo, in The Chronicle of Higher Education, makes the claim that the entire educational process, from kindergarten to the end of college develops ‘one-dimensional students’ who lack flexibility and creativity, which are the key to future jobs. Each of these arguments has merit, but I think they need to be viewed in a broader context.
There is a distinct generational anxiety that shines through these two articles, the practices being criticized, and the larger discourse about the future of the United States. At its heart, this conversation has a deep concern about whether the Millennial students are significantly different from previous generations of college students. This anxiety is presented in many different ways. It is at the heart of discussions regarding helicopter parents, students who have never done research in a library and get information from the Internet, the ease of online cheating, students who need constant praise because they received (meaningless) participation metals growing up, the lack of activism by college students, and even the amount of time students devote to social activities instead of studying. This level of anxiety over Millennials as college students can be most easily seen in the number of sessions at the most recent Teaching Professor conference dedicated to providing college instructors with an understanding of the worldviews and needs of current students (seven sessions in 2011, compared to two sessions in 2009).
The core question that we seem to be facing is: Are Millennials different from previous generations of college students?
On one level, the answer to this question is obviously in the affirmative. Traditional age college students today are different from previous cohorts of college students. A first-year student in 2011 was in early elementary school on September 11, 2001. They have spent their entire lives with the World Wide Web. They were tested throughout their careers under the standards established by No Child Left Behind. They have only been alive during three presidential administrations. These are just a few of the differences that make Millennial students different from their professors.
On a different level, it is unclear whether Millennials are that much different from any previous generation of college students. As Gertrude Stein claimed: “A difference, to be a difference, must make a difference.” The key question is: do the different features of the current cohort of college students actually make a meaningful difference? At any juncture in the history of higher education, we could point to unique and contingent factors that make students different from their instructors. This does not make each of these unique features a true difference, in Stein’s sense. Consider the concern over the use of the Internet in research, as opposed to using the library. Is there a meaningful difference? Today’s students have a different source of information than their instructors had at their disposal. But this does not mean there is a meaningful educational difference. The purpose of research projects has always been fivefold: 1) teach students to develop a research project; 2) help students develop a level of understanding on a topic that has depth, rather than breadth; 3) encourage students to formulate a complex argument; 4) encourage students to engage multiple sources to synthesize an understanding of the complexity of the subject; and, 5) teach students to evaluate the quality of multiple sources to determine the strengths and weaknesses. These goals seem independent of the location where the student finds the sources. The fact that it is easier for current students to have multiple sources at their fingertips does not seem to be a real difference. The educational goals are exactly the same.
This does not mean that all of the unique features of Millennial students are irrelevant to the core goals and missions of higher education. During his keynote address at the Reflecting on Teaching Conference, at the University of North Dakota, Ken O’Donnell presented a demographic look at the future of higher education. He directly connected how differences within current, and future, college students do have significant difference on the goals of higher education. He stressed the increased number of first-generation college students, the racial make-up differences, and high rate of college transfers within the current cohort of college students. These differences, he argued, do make a difference in the missions of universities. They make a difference because they have an impact on the dropout rate of these groups and the preparedness of incoming students. Each of these differences challenges the current effectiveness of traditional models of teaching and learning. For a more details on these points, please see the coverage of his keynote address.
The task of educators needs to be determining which differences are meaningful differences. We need to be careful in how we understand the characteristics of Millennials. We need to avoid placing too much emphasis on contingent differences that are superficial to the goals of higher education; we need to avoid complaining that students’ attitudes, behaviors, demands, etc. are so much worse now because they are different from past students or different from how we experienced college. Perhaps we need to ask ourselves, as instructors, do our expectations for student learning match students’ expectations for what they want in a college degree? Do we need to alter our own perspectives on what we are hoping students will gain from their college experience? If this type of reassessment is what’s needed, we should carefully ferret out which of the differences actually need to be addressed in order for Millennials to attain the skills they need for the modern workforce.